Train Like a Pro?

Well here we are. March; the end of the base training and pre-competition periods of our winter training cycle and the beginning of our long, arduous and hopefully enjoyable and successful, competitive year.  This is what we've been training for all winter; competition, be it against ourselves, the watch or each other.

Now we have to ask have we trained hard enough, long enough and to the right intensity to best prepare ourselves for the coming season?  We'll soon know once our first events take place.  But is that good enough in this day and age?  Should we be leaving four months of preparation in the wind, rain and cold to chance? 

Traditional Values
In the good old days, when steak was considered top race fuel, Lucozade was for sick people and there were only four channels on TV.  We used (had) to wear black shorts, white socks and laced up our cleated shoes before we strapped them to our pedals. 

Carbon was something in the middle of a pencil, and Vitus, Reynolds 531c and Columbus SLX were the frame materials of choice.  Seven gears were enough, 52x42 was the optimum chainset gearing and you had to reach down if you wanted to friction change a gear.

There's been a massive advance over the last twenty years in cycling, especially in frame technology, wheels, equipment and clothing.  Try to  find someone racing on a steel frame today, and wheels have gone from the groundbreaking Mavic Helium to Campag Hyperons and Boras.  These days, finding wheels with round spokes is as good a way as any to pass the time before a race.

The abundance of shoes, pedal systems and clothing materials (alpaca shorts and wool jerseys anyone?) have taken us from the backwater dark ages to the cutting edge of sporting excellence.  Previously, materials like titanium, carbon fibre, kevlar and magnesium were only found on racing cars and space ships. 

While technology has undoubtedly helped in all areas of our sport, it still surprises me how some people have no wish to embrace the training tools, methodologies and technologies we now have at our disposal.  Some, while riding and wearing the latest in cutting edge technology, hold on to the traditional training methods and principles of a bygone age.  Which is fine, but traditional methods bring traditional results. 

Maybe it's time to consider an alternative training view and take the road less travelled; in amateur circles at least.  Why not train like a pro?

Brave New World
The training tools, technologies and knowledge are here now to help you better prepare for your competitions in the future.  For the price of a decent set of wheels you can invest in your development and transform your training regimen by cutting hours a week from your training programmes through training smarter not longer. 

In 1988, myself and Guy Webb bought our first heart rate monitors.  Everybody laughed!  In 2004 I bought my first SRM, having used power to train on my turbo since 2000.  People were, shall we say, "politely indifferent".  This year I've bought a second compact SRM for my sportive Colnago Extreme C.  People think I'm just showing off!  It's not cheap but for me it sure is worth it.  Having two SRM's for my bikes has doubled the value of the information I get from them and gives me vital knowledge of wattages and thresholds for climbing mountains.

Using a power meter, and the imperative analytical software as a companion, it's possible to measure every input and output during an interval, a ride, a month, a preparation period or even a whole season.  By measuring key parameters within a ride we can plan our own training to ensure we're progressing  in a controlled, measured, structured and sustainable way.

Training Stress & Intensity Factor
How intense is our training and how do we define intensity?  Is two hours on the flat as hard as an hour in the hills?  How does it compare to a 10 mile Time Trial?

A well designed plan, that follows the basic FIT principles of manipulating frequency, intensity and time will ensure our training has a predictable, measurable benefit.  Progressive overload has to be applied for training adaptation to take place.  It's a simple formula; no overload, no progression.  Too much overload, athlete breakdown.  So knowing how hard you are training and how much overload you are applying is crucial to the success of your training plan.

Training Peaks (the analytical software) has a built in automated system for measuring ride intensity.  It's Training Stress Score (TSS) is a marker created from algorithms within the software that works in conjunction with our power meter and our known threshold power and the inputs we created when riding the bike. 

Training Stress Score correlates a value to each workout from a combination of the ride's (IF) Intensity Factor (power relative to threshold) and the ride's distance (volume).  Using these markers, we can create workouts and training sessions that return a controlled, predicted, measured and sustainable response from the body. 

How it works in practice
As I have the utmost respect for the confidentiality of the people with whom I work, I don't pass on names, training figures, information or results that can be directly attributable to identifiable riders.  So I'm afraid, once again, I have to use my figures as an indicative benchmark.  I know it's all me, me, me but I'm afraid that's how it has to be.

On the 9th September 2006 I rode the Ronde Picarde and hit TSS & IF figures of 285 and 0.869.  This was a mildly hard event at the end of a long year and I placed 60th overall and 19th vet.  Four weeks later I rode my last event of the year, the Giro Lombardia, with similar figures. 

I create a non-scientific indicator of my ride by multiplying the Training Stress Score by the Intensity Factor.  This gives me a "training load indicator" that allows me to plot my progression. 

Picarde and Lombardy's "training loads" of 228-230 weren't the highest of the year but they were right where I expected them to be as end of season events.  I then take these training load indicators as a benchmark of my end of season fitness.  My end of season competition fitness rating is 230-ish. 

My first official ride of the new season was on 5th November.  A two and a half hour, 65 kilometre recovery ride with the obviously much reduced TSS-IF figures of 141 & 0.754; and a resultant training load of 106.  Happy days, less than half the load of recent rides and I didn't even get out of breath.

As the winter progresses routes, plans and workouts are created to ensure a controlled, progressive, sustainable overload that prevents me becoming run-down, ill, over trained or stale.  Three weeks on, one week off ensure my motivation and focus remain high.

As you'll see from other areas of this site, I categorize rides, weeks and months using the RAG methodology; Red, Amber, Green.  Red being the hardest, green the easiest.  At the end of each RAG cycle, be it weekly or monthly, is a grey recovery period which allows physiological and psychological adaptation to take place.

The chart above diagrammatically maps my Winter Foundation Training period (a Meso Cycle).  Each week (a Micro Cycle) builds on the efforts of the previous week.  So green week 1 is hard, amber week 2 is harder and red week three is hardest.  A grey, recovery, easy week 4 follows.

Weeks 1 to 4 collectively form November and are considered a Green Period.  Weeks 5 to 8 (December) an Amber Period and Weeks 9-12 (January) are the Red Period.  (Week 12 is a grey recovery week)

February and March sees an eight week Pre-Competition Period, another Meso Cycle, that develops on the foundations of the the previous work undertaken and adds speed endurance and threshold power to the equation in a similar fashion. 

By periodizing your training in this way you get to manipulate your body and mind to perform at a level you expect, not hope.  It's easy to cope with hard training when you know an adaptation week is no more than three weeks away.  It's as important to give your mind a rest as well as your body.  The grey weeks make the pain bearable, the adaptation results make it enjoyable!

You can see the concept of these meso cycles, and the training load progression, in the table below.

Planning your training
The training load and overload principles can be seen from actual training and race data below.  The table begins with the penultimate race of the sportive season; the Ronde Picarde.  I did the Tour of Lombardy in October but that would mess the recovery bit up!  So for the sake of clarity, I've kept it simple.

Date Distance TS IF Load  
Picarde ~ Sept 135k 266 0.857 228  
Recovery ~ Oct 65k 147 0.745 109  
November ~ Flat 80k 201 0.812 163  
December ~ Mix 100k 242 0.821 198  
January ~ Hilly 85k 289 0.869 251  
February 60k 213 0.920 195  
March 100k 334 0.924 308  
Sarthe ~ April 155k 378 0.919 347  
Bossis ~ May 151k 395 0.955 377  
Pyreneene ~ June 175k 410 0.740 303  
Recovery ~ July 65k 147 0.865 127  
Pour Paix ~ Aug 115k 232 0.781 187  
Hill Work ~ Aug 110k 338 0.905 305  
Lapabie ~ Sept 170k 410 0.784 321  
Recovery ~ Oct 75k 158 0.724 114  

You can see from the actual training figures above that Training Stress and Intensity Factor build each month to give a controlled, progressive, sustainable overload.  

The first red line represents the scores from my final competitions in September 2006.  Using my training methodology, a power meter and Cycling Peaks, I can plan and plot the progression of my training months in advance.  All I have to do is use my power meter and analysis software to make sure I hit the figures!

When developing training plans for athletes, the first objective of my methodology is to hit the first red peak in January at a training load higher than that at which competition took place in the previous September.  This ensures we have adequate preparation for the forthcoming year as we know, come January, we've already pushed ourselves as hard as any early season competition we could reasonably expect.  From January onwards all we have to find is speed!

Early February sees a throttle back on distance but an increase in intensity.  As late February, early March and the season approaches, intensity remains the same with volume and stress ramping up.  Come  April, and the early competition phase, a Training Stress Score, akin to those in italics taken from last year's La Danguillaume, are what we are aiming for. 

May sees a further push (red period) and June gives us a recovery period before we head in to the final peak phase of July, August and September.  Then it all starts again!  And that's a Macro Cycle; a full season of competition, for us at least.

Comparing Like with Like
You can also see that the 100k ride from the green week in February (24/02/07) is much more intense than the 100k orange ride in December (02/12/06).  Although they are both 100k rides, and felt the same in physical tiredness and effort, they give considerably different training loads and stresses.  You can also see that the green "easy" week is now harder than a previous orange "medium" week.  That's progression that is.

We're all aiming to do the same thing with our training programs.  Experience can help you get to where you think you need to be.  But the right tools can let you know exactly where you are and when you've got there.  They can also stop you going too far and peaking too soon.  Progression is planned and known, not hoped for or assumed.

Plotting Progression
Through using analysis tools alongside a power meter you can track and plot each training ride retrospectively.  This retrospective information gives all the detail needed to allow the application of your knowledge and experience to help you prepare training plans that will allow your continued, controlled, sustainable progression.  If you didn't see planned progression from your last ride, you make your next ride harder.

You can see a graphical representation of this in the chart below.

September and October are maintenance peaks for the Ricarde and Lombardy sportives.  A and B are the 10 minute power peaks of 246 and 241 watts established during these competitions.

The big drop off after October can clearly be seen, this was my post-competition recovery period, or blow-out as it's normally known. 

From the lowest trough, we can see there are three peaks in November, the green, amber and red weeks.  You already know my green ride was  a two and a half hour, 65 kilometre recovery ride.  The following two weeks built on that effort until  you clearly see my recovery drop (grey week) to allow a training adaptation to take place.

The cycle is then repeated for December, January and February.  Three weeks on, one week off and a steady increase in fitness, endurance and power. 

The 10 minute power peak C, on the 15th February, was 239 watts which proves that the training plans have got us back to where we were in September.  We're now ready for further progression when the season kicks off in a few weeks time.  I've removed all of the November to February power lines (red) to make the chart easier to read.

Confirming Preparation
It's okay to prove that our ten minute power is where it should be.  But what about across the whole training spectrum.  Aerobic, anaerobic, tempo, threshold, VO2max, sprinting, etc, etc.  There's no point in having the greatest 10 minute peak power in the peloton if you're going backwards come the sprint!

Again, analysis software comes to the rescue.  Every pedal stroke of my 2006 season was recorded on my SRM's and downloaded in to Cycling Peaks.  From that information I can draw up my maximum power outputs across my entire physiological range in the blink of an eye.


My 2006 maximum power wattages are shown in the chart above by the dotted line.  My training for the last 28 days is shown by the yellow line and the more observant of you will note that they're not too far apart. 

The analysis tools allow me to track the peaks and troughs of my training and help identify exact points and specific threshold power areas that I need to address.  

Apart from a 13 watt deficit from peak power to the 6 second threshold, I'm pretty much as strong now as I was at any point during the whole of 2006.  Which means my power meter and software tools have been a better investment than say a new pair of wheels or a frame.  I know the stuff I've bought, and the training I've done, has worked.  No more guess work!

Because of the nature of living in an island nine miles by five miles, it's almost impossible to hit the sustained hour plus wattages until the racing season starts.

Measuring Improvement
If you don't have a power meter, or the software to analyse your training, there are other methods you can use.  To prove that you're on track, tests can be carried out to validate whether your training has worked or we still have work to do.

The now infamous 6-minute test gives us all the data we need to measure physiological progress.  It's carried out on an ergometer but you can use a turbo and cycle computer if that's all you have.  It doesn't work on the road so forget those books that tell you to do "field tests" because the information back from them is at the very best, questionable.

The test graph below shows a comparison of an athlete's January 2007 winter preparation test and one from their pre-competition March 2006 test. 

The January solid line shows a 13% improvement over the previous test taken, and that's from a time period two months earlier in the year.  This athlete is 13% stronger two months before the season starts.  What I haven't plotted, to keep the graphs less cluttered, is the fact that this 13% increase was achieved with a heart rate 8 beats per minute lower.  How much confidence do they now have going in to this season?

For less than the price of a tyre, and an hour of time, they've confirmed that they're ready to take on all comers.  How good is that?

The beauty of this system, Train, Test, Analyse, Plan, is you don't just ride around until the early season and hope your doing well.  You know exactly how well you're doing and with time and experience can predict your peak to within days.

The Message
I know I've rattled on a bit in this factsheet but this stuff is important.  It is, quite literally, result-changing stuff.  My mantra is, if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got.

I keep banging on about the tiniest of fractions by which races are won and lost.  Sometimes it's not all down to power, sometimes it's in the head.  But when you get feedback on every ride and pedal stroke, and the figures come back like those above, then imagine the confidence that brings to an athlete. 

You don't just think or hope you're stronger, you know you're stronger.  It doesn't matter what anyone else has done, you know you've done your best and improved.  If you're chasing personal bests in time trials and you're 10% up on your power output, only an act of God or a bloody big headwind can mess you up!

I would recommend that you hold back on that new frame or new set of wheels.  Take the plunge and get a power meter and the software that can help you develop as a rider and athlete.  It ain't cheap and it doesn't make your training any easier, but it does make it smarter.  Look on it as an investment not a cost.

For once we've been a head of the game.  Finally the pro's have caught up with our Brave New World.  This season the Astana. Lotto and Telekom teams have all signed up to use Cycling Peaks software to analyse their training.   

Also, if you watched the recent World Cup Track Championships from Manchester you'd have seen that every Australian and Great Britain cyclist had SRM cranks on their track bikes.  Every pedal stroke between now and Beijing is being monitored, measured and analysed to help build a picture of what needs to be done to win an Olympic medal.

Finally to further prove my point here are my power comparisons from 2004 and 2007.  In the past four years I've gained power right across the board.  But just look at that top end.  I've gained almost a 100 watts and can sustain more power for longer.  I'm also four years older and at 47 still keep progressing.  How happy am I?

We may not be able to get the backup, support or rest of a pro rider but there's nothing to stop us training like one.

Have a powerful, successful and enjoyable season.